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Indian man slated for execution in Saudi Arabia saved after expats raise $4m

Machilakath Abdul Rahim, who killed a Saudi teenager in a 2006 accident, now looks set to be freed after friends and celebrities back his release
Machilakath Abdul Rahim had been working as a driver in Saudi Arabia for a month when the 15-year-old he was looking after died accidentally at his hands (Supplied)

An Indian national convicted of killing the Saudi teenager he was paid to drive has escaped execution in the kingdom after Indians around the globe raised nearly $4 million to save him. 

Machilakath Abdul Rahim, 44, had long held that he was innocent in the death of 15-year-old Anas al-Shahri, who had a rare health condition that left him paralysed from the neck down.

Rahim has been held in a Riyadh jail since 2006, spending one-third of his life caught up in an opaque system that rights groups say regularly mishandles cases involving foreigners.

Two attempts to appeal his case, including at Saudi Arabia's supreme court, had both hit dead ends.

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But after years of mediation and a crowdfunding campaign, largely supported by natives of Rahim’s home state of Kerala, including a celebrity jeweller and a software start-up team, it appears that he will soon be free.

'Kerala has created a noble example of love to save a life'

- Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala's chief minister

Observers have said the news is also a triumph for Kerala, a unique state in southern India where half of the population are Muslims and Christians, and which has resisted the Hindu right-wing trend sweeping many northern Indian states.

The state’s political culture, now under attack from the right-wing, has been shaped by minority parties and various Marxist factions, high literacy rates, and expatriate remittances.

“Kerala has created a noble example of love to save a life and wipe the tears of a family,” the state’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, said on Facebook last week. 

"It is a declaration that Kerala is a fortress of brotherhood, which communalism cannot destroy."

Fluke accident

Rahim arrived in Riyadh in November 2006 to work as a driver for the Al-Shahri family. His main responsibility was looking after Anas al-Shahri, who required machines to breathe and eat as a result of his condition.

One month into the job, the two were on a shopping trip when the teenager repeatedly asked Rahim to jump traffic lights, according to Najim Kochukalunk, a Riyadh-based reporter for Indian newspaper Madhyamam who has reported on the case for years.

While Rahim tried to appease Anas, he slightly touched his face which caused Anas’ breathing device to come off. 

Rahim only realised what had happened when he found the boy's lifeless body on the seat and the breathing device on the floor. 

A panicked Rahim called a distant relative, Mohammed Naseer, who was also working in Riyadh. Together, they concocted a story that robbers had attacked Rahim for money. 

To make it plausible, Naseer tied Rahim to the seat and then called the police who soon realised they were lying and locked them up.

Expats to the rescue

Kochukalunk, the reporter in Riyadh, only met Rahim out of chance when he was visiting another inmate in the Malaz Prison in 2007. 

“Another prisoner introduced himself as [Mohammed] Naseer and told me about a case in which he and his relative Rahim were involved,” the reporter told Middle East Eye.

“I couldn't get enough time to speak, so I wrote my phone number on paper and threw it at him.”

The slip of paper made it through two layers of security grills to Naseer, who later called Kochukalunk with Rahim and told him their story. His newspaper published a detailed account.

Despite the press it received, Rahim's case dragged on in Riyadh’s criminal court.

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"The boy's mother testified in the court that she strongly believed Rahim killed him," Kochukalunk said. "In Saudi courts, the version of the victim's blood relatives carry more weight than other evidence."

In 2011, after more than three years imprisonment, the court handed Rahim the death penalty.

Ashraf Venghat, an activist from Kerala who is based in Riyadh and associated with the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre, an expat charity and volunteer organisation, had been following Rahim's situation.

After Rahim received the death sentence, Venghat convened other expatriate organisations to form a legal team which also explored diplomatic intervention and mediation. 

The newly formed committee hired a defence lawyer for Rahim who filed an appeal on his behalf. The appeal court upheld the criminal court's death penalty, but extended the period before Rahim was set to be executed.

Meanwhile, the legal team secured Naseer’s parole in 2016.

In Saudi Arabia, someone convicted of murder that was not premeditated can be released if the victim’s family agrees to forgive them, sometimes alongside a financial settlement.

So Rahim’s legal team attempted to mediate with Anas’ family, but these efforts stalled when Anas’ father died.

For years, the committee attempted to find other family members to continue the mediation. Meanwhile, Rahim's lawyers appealed his case at the Supreme Court which upheld the death penalty.

Time was running out. In October 2022, mediation resumed with the family demanding nearly $4m.

Last October, in the presence of Indian embassy officials, a final settlement was reached, and it was agreed that the money would be handed over this past Tuesday.

Fundraising drive 

Now the race was on to raise the money in time. A new committee made of people from Rahim's home town of Feroke started a fundraising drive.

They had raised around $600,000 by the start of this month when Boby Chemmanur, the owner of gold-retail chain Chemmanur Jewellers, got involved.

Chemmanur is a well-known character celebrated by fan clubs in various Kerala expat communities who often share videos of his dancing.

Boby Chemmanur
Boby Chemmanur asks bus riders in Kerala this month to donate to help save Machilakath Abdul Rahim from execution (Supplied)

He drives a gold-plated Rolls-Royce, wears clothing that closely resembles the traditional outfits worn by Syrian Christian women in Kerala, and hosted the Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona multiple times in Kerala who, in turn, posed in Chemmanur's jewellery advertisements. 

Known to love a publicity stunt, Chemmanur hopped on board in the final weeks of the campaign, committing over $100,000 and hit the streets of Kerala with a begging bowl to collect money. 

'I'm happy that those efforts were not wasted'

- Ashraf Venghat, Kerala activist

The campaign was also pushed forward by a three-man software start-up team, Spinecodes, who created a 'Save Abdul Rahim' app for Android and Apple phones so that people worldwide could donate funds.

When the target was achieved on 12 April, the whole of Kerala rejoiced.

Venghat is now in India, coordinating the details and moving papers to release the funds from the bank to the Indian embassy account in Riyadh. It is the end to a years-long battle.

Once paper work is finalised and the cash transfer confirmed, an Indian embassy official in Riyadh told MEE that Rahim is expected to be released in two or three months.

"We submitted mercy petitions to two kings and met multiple governors in Riyadh and Asir provinces and negotiated with many family members and lawyers,” Venghat told MEE. 

“I'm happy that those efforts were not wasted.”

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